Joyland

a hub for short fiction

The Poetry Audition

Excerpted from Good Night, Mr. Kissinger and Other Stories, available now from UPL Books.

Bahram and Jamshed were dressed alike as children because their father believed it to be the best way of preventing sibling rivalry. Rather than make them better friends though, their identical wardrobes led to some petty confusion. The brothers often wore each other's clothes by mistake. In family photographs of the time Bahram appeared scowling in shorts that hung down to his knees, while Jamshed smiled bravely in collars that nearly choked him.

Their sartorial semblance did not however extend to their character. Jamshed was a brash, bold, willful young boy. Bahram possessed the timidity of a provincial boy, a flaw that his mother could hardly tolerate. Jamshed was sent to a Cadet College, where he thrived, whereas it was a struggle to send Bahram to the posh day school a few streets from their home.

To break her son's debilitating shyness, Bahram's mother forced him to go to birthday parties and rewarded him by taking him to ice cream parlors and matinee shows, buying him toy cars and Lego sets. At night, she read him Russian fairy tales. But neither the forced socializing nor the ample gifts made any permanent mark on Bahram. He was immune to friendship. He regarded other guests at the parties with as much suspicion as he did the colored drinks and the loudly popping balloons. In exasperation, Bahram's mother resorted to rougher measures. She urged him to go play in the neighborhood park. The first day she even walked him to the edge of it literally by the hand.

After she left, Bahram ventured as far as the main soccer field in the middle of the park with iron goalposts at each end. Having reached the boundary, though, he didn't know how to cross it. He wished that someone would ask him to join in the game, but such invitations were not abundantly forthcoming. At best, when the ball went out of the field on his side, he would receive a passing glance from the player who came out to fetch it. But this gave him an idea and he busied himself with his brand new soccer ball on the sidelines, occasionally allowing it to dart into the field. He ran after it hoping to create an occasion for striking up a friendship. But for the most part no one took any notice of him. When they did, the boys would stop playing–the man in possession stopping their official FIFA No. 5 black-and white ball underfoot, a goalkeeper leaping up to grab the upper bar to have a stretch, and the other players using this unexpected moment of respite to sit or lie down–until Bahram collected his ball and returned to his outpost.

There were other boys who played in the side fields, but Bahram had grown a fixation for the main one. The boys who played there were quite indifferent to the sudden emergence of a lone spectator. Bahram persevered in his act until one day, when his ball went inside the field, a boy with a red armband picked it up and sent it flying with a kick into a nearby ditch. Everyone in the field laughed and Bahram too joined the laughter as though the joke was not at all on him, but on the muddied soccer ball.

When he came home that day, smeared with mud and sweat, his mother said to him, “Looks like you had a very good game today, Bahram.” He nodded and affected more exhaustion than he felt, for he was sure that if he spoke his voice would quaver. After a wash, he came out to the verandah for tea. His mother asked him, “So, have you made some new friends?”

By now more in control of himself, “Sure,” he said.

A few days after Bahram's humiliation in the playground his brother Jamshed returned home for the Ramadan break from the Cadet College. The first thing Jamshed wanted to know about as soon as he found himself alone with Bahram was the situation in the neighborhood park. How many groups were there, he asked, and who was in command of which? It had never occurred to Bahram to think of the playground in these terms. The mass of sweating, screaming, running hoodlums in the field had appeared to him as an amalgamated throng of hostile strangers. They were all together in a group and he was the lone outsider. Who would have thought that those boys might themselves be separated into rivaling factions? Jamshed used to be a regular at the field with a small team of his own, until he was sent away. Bahram was of course unable to answer any of Jamshed's questions and felt embarrassed about it. But he didn't hesitate to tell Jamshed about the incident at the field. Jamshed took him to the field that very afternoon to have the culprits identified.

"Him, that one with the red armband. He kicked my ball into the ditch," said Bahram pointing from afar at the worst offender.

"Him? That fat Bihari?" asked Jamshed, looking incredulously at Bahram. Bahram felt the color rising to his cheeks and tried to shift the focus back to the culprit with,

"Yes, that one. But I don't know his name."

"It's Asqari," said Jamshed and then added thoughtfully, "So they have taken over the main field."

The next day Jamshed forced Bahram to rummage with him in the garage all day, but refused to reveal for what he was looking. They collected all kinds of odd items and the next day they visited the neighborhood boys, whom Jamshed showered with the scavenged artifacts. He gave Badrul the chains and tires of a bicycle while the detached handles of the same vehicle went to Tulu. Afsar was puzzled with his toothless hairbrush, until Jamshed coolly pointed out that it had a mirror on the backside. When their stocks ran low, Jamshed bribed the darwans with cigarettes stolen from his father's drawer to gain access to other garages in the neighborhood. The finds were rich: skateboards without wheels, magnifying glasses gone foggy, gumboots with punctured soles, a German encyclopedia, several beautiful but empty bottles of wine and champagne and a set of false teeth with golden canines. These were freely distributed among the lesser members of the warring tribes. To win over the petty chieftains Jamshed parted with some of his most prized personal possessions – an American Indian costume, a Nepalese dagger with a leather case, and an authentic general's badge.

One day they found a broken viewfinder that Bahram wanted to keep, and Jamshed agreed to let him have it. But when they arrived at Montu's, Jamshed suddenly fished out the viewfinder and said, "Look Montu, what Bahram found for you."

Although the same snowy landscape appeared no matter how many times one clicked the viewfinder, Montu seemed terribly pleased. When they came out from Montu's, Bahram looked accusingly at Jamshed and said, "You said I could have that. Why did you give it away?"

"The damn thing was broken anyway. What did you want it for?" laughed Jamshed.

"But still," complained Bahram, having formed a sentimental attachment to the object in the short span of time between its discovery and its dispensation. "You said it was mine."

One afternoon, a few days later, Jamshed took Bahram and his red football to the park a little before four. Jamshed had learned that the Biharis always came to the field at that hour. Their numerousness and fierce group loyalty made them unassailable. Since the others had to clear the field when the Biharis showed up, they tried to play as much as they could in the main field before four.

But on this day, the park was surprisingly empty. Two half-naked but robust slum children ran around the park with their sticks and hoops. Except the metal ringing on the cement pathway nothing disturbed the peace of the shady green field.

Jamshed seemed not to notice the uncanny silence that had descended on the park and asked Bahram to throw him the ball. He blocked the ball with his chest and then caught it with his knees before it fell to the ground. No matter whether he kicked the ball with the front, back or side of his foot, it came back to Bahram with deadly accuracy. Bahram threw the ball very high to Jamshed, but no matter how high it was thrown Jamshed headed it back unflinchingly.

Bahram regarded his brother's feat with proud astonishment. As Bahram watched the ball went up to the sky, it shrank smaller, and before it had time to come down he heard a whistle. It came from one of the Bihari boys, most of whom were still busy putting down their bags and flasks. As always they had come directly from school and in their white uniforms looked, though it wasn't the season for it, like a professional cricket team. Instead of heading the ball back Jamshed took it in his arms, while Bahram shuffled up closer to him.

"Hey you two, take your game to the side," said the fat Bihari as one by one his players filed onto the field. "But we haven't finished playing yet," said Jamshed.

"Well, finish playing over there," said the fat one as he strode up to Jamshed, his finger raised, even after he had finished speaking, in the intended direction. "Why don't you play over there?"

Now Jamshed raised his finger in the same direction and left it that way. The Bihari didn't answer. Some of his teammates started crowding around him, murmuring with some disdain, "Is there a problem?"

"You should go there because we always play here," explained the fat Bihari.

"But why should we play in the outfield when we got here first?"

"They got here first," repeated the Bihari turning to his fellows. A ripple of laughter went around their circle.

"Should we carry them out?"

"No, let me get them the hoops from those kids."

"Jamshed, let's just go over there," murmured Bahram. But Jamshed quieted him with an assuring squeeze on the shoulder.

"Look," said the Bihari with the tolerance of a benevolent tyrant, "We need the main field. There's so many of us, but only two of you."

"Yeah," said Jamshed, "But the others are coming."

Badrul, Tulu, Afsar and Montu along with the other neighborhood kids stepped out from behind the trees on Jamshed's side of the field wielding cricket bats and steel pointed wickets. Badrul was the only one not carrying any unseasonal sporting equipment; he held a cycle chain slung carelessly over his shoulders.

"Okay, okay," said the Bihari, "You play outside today. We'll play there tomorrow."

"You'll play there tomorrow," said Jamshed, foot resting on his little red ball, "But you'll also play there today."

His team began to form a circle around the Biharis. The leader of the Biharis looked around despairingly at his own teammates. When no one on his side spoke up, he began again,"Okay, okay," wetting his lips quickly, "Okay, I'll tell you what..."–but before he could finish speaking Jamshed pounced on him.

"No I'll tell you what, you fat slob." Jamshed punched him and the boy fell to the ground, covering his face, emitting fearful utterances in his own language. Jamshed sat on the fallen boy's chest, and landed quick but heavy blows on his covered face, shoulders, arms.

The teammates of the boy thought to be Bihari were too stunned by the suddenness and ferocity of Jamshed's attack to move. And when some of them tried to back out, Jamshed's team held them in with a barricade of bats and wickets. Jamshed rose from his opponent's chest, feet planted firmly on either side of his fallen nemesis, and proclaimed to the assembled crowd,"From today this park is ours. We will play here whenever we like and you will play on the outside. You can play in the middle too if you join my team. I'll be the captain of the new team, even when I'm not here..."

Bahram was already impressed by Jamshed's crewcut, his blue-gray uniform, his range of acquaintances, and sportsmanship. But now, after the reclamation of the field, Jamshed became in his eyes as amazing as any bona fide conquistador. From among all the members of his new team, Jamshed selected the best talents to form the main eleven. But once he got to the extras people with non-sporting talents started making the team. Afsar was included because he proved to be an unfailing agent of contraband items–nicotine, alcohol, pornography. Not that his supplies necessarily ensured enjoyment, because once he brought a pound of tobacco but couldn't find a pipe. Tulu became an extra for he had permanent access to a car and another boy had unlimited credit at the local chatpatiwalla's. Someone's father owned a Chinese restaurant and another's uncle a movie house. Even Asqari–the fat Bihari, who, they found out, like most of his teammates, was actually not Bihari at all, but from other parts of India–made the team because when they weren't amusing themselves with free meals or movies, or when it was too hot to drive around the city they could peacefully soak inside or sting one another with wet towels around Asqari's kidney-shaped swimming pool. Jamshed, though only a few years older than Bahram, already possessed not only a taste for the high life but also a knack for inducing its magical manifestation. He also showed an early streak of nepotism by including his singularly untalented brother into this inner circle. At night when they talked across the narrow gap between their beds Jamshed would promise to make Bahram the plenipotentiary of his office when he left for school.

Their parents were cheered to see the impact Jamshed had on Bahram. They thought it might be good for the boys to be together. They considered sending Bahram to the Cadet College or keeping Jamshed at home, and after a month of nightly and circular debates they decided to keep Jamshed at his school and Bahram at home. The boys had to be sent to the kind of schools where they would do their best. The day before he left, Jamshed pulled Bahram aside to explain why, contrary to his promises and earlier plans, he had to put Asqari in charge of the team. "You understand, you are too young to be made captain, or even vice-captain," said Jamshed, although he himself was a bit younger than a lot of the boys in their group. "No one would listen to you, yet."

Bahram was easily persuaded and didn't mind the slow fall in his status after Jamshed's departure.

*

Whenever the team split up now to play practice matches, Asqari and Badrul led the two halves. If they had an oddnumbered gathering to pick from, Bahram would be left hanging in the middle. One of the two captains would invariably say to the other–“You guys take him, we'll play with one less.” Sometimes this magnanimous offer to play with fewer players was countered with–“But we had him in our team yesterday.”

Bahram's recoil from the park was so gradual as to be almost unnoticeable. He hardly minded himself, as new interests claimed him. Grandfather's library of books became his hunting ground. He had always had a fascination for that room, though as a child it was forbidden to him–"Don't disturb Grandfather." Yet, Bahram would tiptoe up the staircase to the corner room that overlooked the back garden, slowly open the door, and wait for Grandfather to look up from his thick, heavy, musty smelling books to beckon him inside. Grandfather would make him an airplane with a scribbled over yellow writing paper. Bahram would fling it in the air and chase it around, while Grandfather became absorbed again in his abstractions. As a child, Bahram loved the mysterious smell of sweet tobacco and leather that enshrouded Grandfather wherever he went and hung heavy in his library.

For a few years, Bahram had ceased to visit the room, since he had become too old for paper planes. Now, old enough for the attractions of the room, Bahram was entranced by its dark coolness and quietness. The shades were always drawn, allowing only geometric slices of afternoon light to filter in through the slats, and an ancient fan rotated slowly, tiredly to the accompaniment of a soothing, metronomic noise. Grandfather had become too old to spend the whole day in that room. He came up still for a morning of perusal with his magnifying glass. But while he slumbered after lunch in the afternoons, Bahram made the place his own.

Grandfather was delighted to know that there was someone in the house to go on caring for his books, but Bahram's father worried about his son's effete tastes. He was too refined to be openly forbidding or even discouraging.

Back home early some afternoons, Bahram's father would come up to the library to find his son slouching with a book. "Reading?"

"Hm."

"It was such a lovely afternoon outside. If you are going to stay in, turn the lights on at least."

"Hm."

"What are you reading?"

"Gibbon."

"Again?"

Bahram would look up, trying hard to hide his annoyance, and searching an answer to a question that to his mind had no meaning. Every time his father found him with a book that he thought was excessively scholarly or literary, his consternation would heighten. "Reading's a good habit," he would tell his wife. "But too much of it can be crippling. There was a boy with us who read all the time–Marx and what not. Thick glasses; he was so serious that he wouldn't even say 'hi' to me or anyone on the street. One opened conversations with him by asking what he thought of dialectic materialism. He really did know a lot. But never came to anything much. He's a clerk now in some office. And writes little stories for papers."

Bahram's mother would smile at her husband's exaggerated fears for their son's future. "Maybe he'll be famous some day," she would respond.

"Who? Bahram?"

"No, your friend."

"You may think it's funny, but I'm telling you, books can be dangerous. They've spoiled so many good talents."

"Oh, you worry too much," his wife would say.

"I'm sure it's just a phase."

Both parents were lulled into believing this consoling fib, since every break when Jamshed came home, Bahram would visit the park more than he ever did on his own. This small departure from his sedentary routines, they took as a sign of hope. If it weren't for these seasonal excursions prompted by Jamshed's visit, Bahram might have completely lost touch with his childhood gang. The gang had splintered back into several factions when Tulu left with some of the newer boys to create a team of his own; they wanted to play cricket all year round. Most of the older friends–Badrul, Afsar, Montu, and, surprisingly, Asqari had, however, stayed with Jamshed's team.

Distance had not diminished the intimacy between the two brothers, but their friendship had changed. Bahram no longer needed Jamshed's protection, nor did he rely exclusively on Jamshed for the sake of his entertainment. Jamshed, on the other hand, increasingly depended on Bahram for help with his studies. Bahram had earned enough double promotions and Jamshed lost enough years that in spite of two years' age difference, Bahram was now the same grade as Jamshed, and equally skilled in solving geometry theorems and writing creative essays.

In their looks too they had grown remarkably apart. Even his own clothes hung too loose on Bahram, blue-green veins showing under his pale skin. Jamshed had the complexion of damp earth. He could look disjointed owing to too much height, but whenever he was put to the test he displayed extraordinary strength and coordination.

In the afternoons Jamshed went out swishing a tennis racquet from side to side. Bahram spent his afternoons either in Grandfather's study or at Uncle Haider's, whose house was a veritable dormitory of derelicts. Addicts of every kind were received there with open arms, and Bahram was delighted to be accepted in this circle of elders. There was always a strong supply of well brewed tea, filter-less cigarettes, and even an occasional puff of dope. But Bahram's addiction was a good adda.

Uncle Haider could hold forth on any number of subjects: the treatises of Ibn-al-Arabi or the poetry of Gabriela Mistral, the habits of Australian sloths and court rituals of the Safavis–for him to know about anything it was only necessary for the subject to be sufficiently odd, obscure or useless. Sometimes, after his tennis, Jamshed came to look for Bahram at Uncle Haider's. Even when he knew Bahram was there, he couldn't always readily identify his brother's smoke shrouded figure. "God, don't you guys ever air this room?" he'd say, as he left with Bahram.

This routine became very common the winter after they both graduated from college, with very different results. One evening, when they walked back from Uncle Haider's, much later than usual, Rauf the servant informed them that their father was looking for them.

"What exactly did he say? Was he just asking if we were around or did he say he wanted to see us?" asked Jamshed.

"He said to go see him as soon as you came in."

"How did he say it? Did he sound angry?" asked Bahram.

"No, he just said, 'Where are they? Tell them to come see me.'"

"You have any idea what this is about?" Bahram asked Jamshed as they went to see their father after dinner.

"Where have you boys been all day? Come on, sit down."

Their father looked earnest, but showed no signs of discontentment. He lay in his bed, propped up by a cloud of soft pillows, Rauf massaging his feet with oil.

"That's enough," he said to Rauf, waving him away.

"So where have you been–at the park?"

"No we were at Uncle Haider's."

"There again. No wonder you smell of cigarettes. Anyway, the reason I called you, now that you have both graduated, you must decide what you're going to do."

"I want to become a Professor of Philology," said Bahram, without a moment's hesitation.

Their father, presumably thinking it safer simply to move on, and in hopes presumably of a saner response, asked Jamshed, "What about you?"

Jamshed had gone pale from the moment he saw what the purpose of this audience was. He knew that the session was well overdue and he had rehearsed clever little speeches in anticipation of it from the day he came back home. But those dazzling little rhetorical vignettes that he had performed with so much panache for Bahram behind closed doors, completely eluded him now. He cast one last despairing glance in Bahram's direction before opening his mouth. "I–I want to be a poet."

Their father was at once dumbfounded. "Bahram, I always knew was a fool," said their father with a deep deliberation. "What the hell is wrong with you?" He massaged the back of his neck vigorously as he always did when overcome with anger or stress.

As Bahram and Jamshed both sat in petrified silence, readying themselves for more vitriol and anguish to pour forth from their surprised father, suddenly the man changed tack. In a softer, but challenging voice he asked Jamshed, "Exactly how do you intend to go about becoming a poet?"

Bahram, though not surprised, was pained by the ensuing interchange. He felt largely responsible for the strait that Jamshed seemed hell-bent on getting deeper into. Bahram had introduced Jamshed to poetry. He had always felt a strong compulsion to share with Jamshed the latest source of his own excitements. But in this particular case he was also motivated by the desire to mitigate–with a gentle dose of culture–Jamshed's lack of sophistication, if not downright uncouthness, in thought and feeling, which he knew was a natural consequence of long stays in the Cadet College and overexposure to ruffians.

Bahram worried that getting Jamshed to read the poems at all would be the hardest part. But Jamshed proved infinitely amenable to the suggestion. Bahram started him on some of the older local talents–Tagore, Nazrul, Satyendranath Dutta, and, of course, Sukanta. Then he brought him to the Big Five–the great modernist pioneers of the '30s–Jibanananda Das, Amiya Chakravarty, Sudhindranath Dutta, Buddhadev Basu, and Bishnu Dey. Bringing Jamshed to the Bengalis before the foreigners, Bahram later realized, was a mistake. Because now Jamshed was excited to recognize traces of the Bengali poets in the writings of Mallarmé, Valéry and Arragon, or Pound, Eliot, and Auden. To Jamshed locating influences was a highly sophisticated form of literary discussion and he could not stop talking about the Bengalis' impact on world poetry. When Bahram tried to correct him he would say smugly, "Bahram, don't think you know everything."

This was the first time that Bahram noticed Jamshed's peculiar tendency to become attached to certain ideas that pleased him. And Jamshed might have clung to his deluded notions about the directions of cultural influence, if one day at the end of his patience, Bahram hadn't grabbed Jamshed by the shirtfront and yelled into his face, "Jamshed, Mallarmé died before Jibanananda Das was born. Mallarmé died before any of these guys were born. Mallarmé died in fucking 1898! He couldn't have read any of these guys even if he had wanted to, even if he had known Bengali, because not even Bengal knew of them at the time. So don't ever again talk about influences."

Nothing dampened Jamshed's passion for poetry. He went around almost in a trance reciting lines from his favorite poems–"I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling the floors of the silent seas." Bahram found it acutely funny that a robust soul like Jamshed should be so deeply moved by lines expressing a desire for a crustacean existence and resolved to do all he could to sustain Jamshed's enthusiasm for poetry.

Bahram worried that Jamshed might suddenly grow tired of these poems and continued to bring him new material. As it happened, Jamshed showed no inclination at the time for the newer poems with which Bahram sought to retain his interest; he just read and reread the poets he already liked. Problems along these lines Bahram had anticipated; but what he hadn't foreseen was that Jamshed might start writing poems of his own.

Jamshed was so deeply convinced of the merit of his poetry, that when he showed them to his brother, Bahram didn't have the heart to offer his honest opinion. Around the same time Jamshed also began to discover new poets on his own. And when he brought home some Kaikobad and Sufia Kamal, Bahram realized that his brother was as vulnerable to truly bad poetry as he was to truly great poetry. Jamshed's graduation was a year away, and he informed Bahram in a letter–written entirely in verse–that he had made his life's decision: he was going to be a poet. Bahram saw this as a dangerous and unfortunate development, which he felt incumbent on himself to reverse.

As always Bahram pursued his goal by subtle inducements. He affected great indifference to the subject of poetry. He cancelled his subscriptions to the literary journals and wrote to Jamshed saying that he didn't feel like reading poems very much anymore. Jamshed wrote back, "You have a pedantic mind, which is why you can amass information and say clever things about anything you read but you don't know what it is to feel strongly."

When Jamshed came home after graduation, Bahram took more extreme measures. He gave away his poetry books, saying that they cluttered his room. The day he gave away an early edition of Dhusar Pandulipi, Jamshed asked him ruefully, "Why did you give that away? I thought you said I could have it."

Bahram resigned himself to secret despair. And as they sat before their father he told himself that he had tried all along to save Jamshed from such a scene. But since Jamshed had refused to take hints, he would have to hear it from someone. "I want to be a poet," Jamshed said again. "Where, where do you even get these ideas? You have been reading Bahram's books as well, haven't you?"

"Bahram has nothing to do with this. I want to be a poet on my own."

"Jamshed has actually had this interest for quite a while now," said Bahram.

"Is this what they teach in the Cadet Colleges nowadays–to become a poet?"

"No, this is an interest I developed outside of College."

"Haider has been giving you ideas, hasn't he?" Uncle Haider, like all intellectuals, was held in contempt by their father and tolerated only for the sake of kinship.

"No, Uncle Haider has nothing to do with it either. No one influenced me. It's my own interest."

"So, how does one go about becoming a poet? What do you propose to do now?"

"I guess I'll get a job at a paper or something, and write poetry."

"Jamshed, Jamshed. Who's going to give you a job at a paper? How much do you think you'd make at a job like that? Or from your books, if you had any published? It's the kind of thing you can do in Europe or America–in more civilized countries, where there are millions of educated people, thousands of readers. No one gives a damn here about poets and such. You must have a solid career–a title–be a doctor, or an engineer, a barrister, or a colonel."

"I don't care for titles and positions."

"But you must. Titles for a man are like handles for a teacup. Without it no one will pick you up."

"I don't care if they don't."

“That's what you think now."

"That's what I'll always think."

"No! That's where you are wrong. You can think now that you'll always think that way because you don't know what it's like to not have any prestige or privilege."

Bahram braced himself for a familiar tirade along the lines of what-I-had- to-do-when-I-was-your-age and don't-flush-it-away-now- because-when-I'm-gone followed by a lecture on the importance of availing oneself of opportunities and cultivating connections.

"You think at your age I didn't want to be a poet or an actor or something glamorous like that?"

Their father couldn't afford the delusions of a dandy; he had studied entirely on scholarships. "I used to stay up nights worrying how I would put Haider and Hannan through school if father died." Their grandfather had become a Public Notary after years of serving the British Government and was considered a modest success because he had been able to maintain that post until the time of his retirement. "You didn't see the things I saw growing up, that's why you don't appreciate what a privilege it is to be able to hold the jobs you call boring." He was out of his bed now, pacing up and down the length of the room. "You think I went into making steam boilers at your age because it was fun? When I went into the boiler business, no one in this country knew what to do with them." Their father's generation allegedly still worried about doing things for the country. Developing it, modernizing it. "We need people who can make roads and bridges, buildings and culverts. What's another poet? What can people do with words? Nothing, nothing at all."

They didn't know anything–he told them–about the indignities of waiting in corridors to bribe crooked bureaucrats for the signing of petty contracts. "At your age, you see the glamour but not the grit of things. You want to do something great? You want to make history? Well, let me tell you something–I was the first person in this country to export steam boilers, that's history."

Their mother came in to find out what all the commotion was about. A bigger pragmatist than her husband, she said, "So what if he wants to write poems. Let him, he's young yet. He'll find out if it's something he's really meant to do."

"No, to have a proper career he must start now. You always told me to be lenient with Haider. Look what's come of that."

"Oh, was I the one who was lenient with Haider? Who was giving him fat allowances, because they wanted their kid brother to have the things that they didn't have?"

As their parents plunged into a pet debate, Bahram and Jamshed were able to get away for the evening. "You could have said something," muttered Jamshed as they stepped out of the room.

"Say what? I didn't think you'd bring it up so tactlessly. You need to prepare people for news like that."

"You could have told him how good my poems are. You could have...Look, let's not start fighting ourselves, what we need is a new strategy."

"Bahram. You don't actually believe that I'll make it as a poet, do you?" This was not the first time Jamshed had put the question to Bahram, and while neither of them ever tried to specify what would constitute "making it as a poet," Bahram answered as he always did, "The problem you see, Jamshed, is that you don't know if you've really made it as a poet until a century has gone by. So in a sense, we will never know. If you write, you must do so on faith.”

“That's what I intend to do. “

“Yes, but you must also think of pragmatics a little. Maybe you should think of it as a part-time thing. Get a real job, as father was saying, and write in the evenings.

“Devotion can't be part-time," Jamshed replied grimly. Although they escaped the evening's diatribe midway, they knew that more might be coming. Jamshed's professional choice was not solely a matter of his personal decision. Or even his immediate family's. Anyone with the potential of a future patriarch–like Jamshed–became a subject of the whole extended family's vigilance. As news got around, words of dim regret and disapproval poured in from the wide circle of dim-witted relatives. Jamshed solicited Uncle Haider's help to persuade his father, though Bahram questioned the strategic soundness of this move. But Uncle Haider, much sharper than either Bahram or Jamshed in handling what he called "the Byzantine mechanics of the family," roped in Uncle Hannan for the mediation. Uncle Hannan, on better terms with their father, persuaded the recalcitrant parent to withhold judgment on Jamshed, at least until he had had a chance to prove his talent.

Their father called them up again two days later, "I take it you two were behind Hannan's visit. But I don't want to be unfair. I am not going to be the judge of Jamshed's poetry. Other people will do it. All the relatives are coming on Friday. Jamshed will read them his poems. Mawlana Arakan Khan, who is a very learned man and knows more than any of us about poetry, Eastern or Western, has graciously accepted Mannan Dada's invitation to come to this little affair."

Apparently, the two brothers and Uncle Haider were not the only ones thinking strategically. The news of their great uncle Mannan Dada's attendance was quite alarming, to say nothing of an exalted stranger such as the Mawlana. The bench was now heavily stacked against the defendant.

"This would have never happened if Grandfather was still alive," murmured Jamshed.

"A lot would not be happening if he were still alive," agreed Bahram ruefully.

Since Mannan Dada had lost neither his wealth nor his wits, even in his eighties he held tremendous sway over the entire clan. This arch-patriarch had long been held at bay while their own grandfather was alive, since the two men had disagreed violently on everything since their youth. One of them had chosen to go to the Presidency College to read Keats, the other had opted for Aligarh to become a modern Muslim. Ever since Grandfather's death, however, Bahram and Jamshed's father had gravitated towards this other elder. Although their father didn't share the elder's piety, temperamentally they were kindred conservatives.

Whenever older family members convened to discuss some important issue Mannan Dada sat in as the chief arbiter. Uncle Haider had termed this informal institution the Council of Elders.

The Council met most frequently to discuss weddings, less frequently but with more enthusiasm to settle divorces or property disputes, and had the highest attendance for scandalous issues–abortion or adultery. Sometimes the Council convened for rather light-hearted matters–to endorse the naming of a child or to condemn some renegade's renunciation of the family name. But rarely was the Council brought together by a controversy related to art. There was the incident with Uncle Hannan, who had run away to Bombay to become a movie star. After he was captured and delivered home by relatives in India, the Council had ordered his head be shaved and when his hair grew back to a decent length he was married off. Head shavings and sudden marriages had been a popular and potent means of controlling aberrant behavior only a generation before. The Council had never invaded their home in quite this capacity, certainly not while Grandfather was alive. But times had changed.

*

On Friday evening Uncle Haider and Uncle Hannan were the first to arrive in the small red Fiat of which they both claimed ownership. All the relatives showed up shortly after, in time for the Maghreb prayers. But the reading was held up by the delayed arrival of Mawlana Arakan Khan. The Mawlana was an old teacher of grandfather's, and himself a protégé of a historical figure like Sayeed Qutub. This was an association he had formed during his student days at Al Azhar in Cairo, but following the execution of his mentor he fled Egypt to form alliances with the followers of Maududi. He had by now acquired such an aura of ancientness that people felt free to say he had been associated with not just the likes of Maududi and Sayeed Qutub, but figures much older than them. He was said to have been one of the first discoverers of Lalon Fakir, to have known the Sultan of Turkey, and to have been a tutor of the last Moghul. He was old enough that almost any kind of claim could be made about his connections. Angels, spirits, prophets, and departed greats of all manner were thought to hold regular court with him.

The very sight of him–six-feet tall, enrobed in regal white, with a soft white beard and intense, small blue eyes–seemed so majestic and holy, that it was bound to extract a certain amount of almost genetically encoded reaction of pious submission from even the most hardened apostates.

The Mawlana arrived with his usual retinue of petty clerics–all of them robed and bearded like the Mawlana himself. But what in the Mawlana's case gave a sense of nobility, suggested in his followers only meanness. The smell of the cheap attar, the black kohl on their eyelashes, everything was repulsive. Most of them had tinged their beards red with mehendi. These reddened beards not only indicated their religiosity, but for the doubters they also served the purpose of a political barometer. The more the country tilted towards orthodoxy, the redder became the beards.

By the time all the guests were satiated with food and banter and ready to settle down–some with tea cups, others with their pipe and cheroot–it was close to midnight.

Jamshed had lost ten pounds in one week. He looked pale and terrified. Over the course of the week, Jamshed's until now unshakeable faith in his own work had become severely reduced. No matter how many times Bahram told him–“Don't worry, they'll love it,” Jamshed would solemnly shake his head and say–“Maybe I should change the line about the cloud-seared moon.”

Two days before the reading Jamshed came to Bahram and said, "Which poems do you think I should read? These prose poems are obviously better, but maybe they'd prefer verses." Bahram propped himself up on his elbows and looked at Jamshed intently. "I can't choose," said Jamshed with a despairing smile. "What should I read?”

“You should read Baudelaire and Rimbaud," Bahram said with a conspiratorial smile. Jamshed looked at him unsurely.

"Look," said Bahram, "Your poems are very good, but why take chances? You can't go wrong with Baudelaire and Rimbaud.”

“Where are we going to find translations?" said Jamshed, still unconvinced. "What if they recognize the stuff? “

“They won't recognize anything," said Bahram. "I'll translate them for you myself."

The idea appealed to Jamshed and he lay flat on the floor next to Bahram's bed, reading and suggesting changes as Bahram passed him each sheet of the translated poems and finally persuaded him to throw in a few lines of Eliot. Although Jamshed did not doubt the greatness of the poems he held in his hands, as he stood in front of the Council, his mouth still went dry. The reading progressed. Tea cups were refilled. Pipes relit. Trays full of samosas and halvas passed around the room, and Jamshed began to get into the rhythm of his recitation. Yes, this was great poetry, he was sure. He felt inspired and forgot that what he read was not his own creation. He began to improvise, calling the readers hypocrites–which was in the original–but also comparing them to a pair of ragged claws. Lines like–“life, what”–came out of his mouth with native fluidity. He threatened to show his readers the fireworks of hell in a handful of dust. The elders listened gravely, intently. Many were sleepy. They would have fallen asleep a long time ago, if they weren't jarred every so often by unexpected epithet-like phrases issuing forth from Jamshed's mouth. The reading lasted over two hours and the Council went into conference when Jamshed finished. It was past midnight.

Bahram and Jamshed sat outside the drawing room. Jamshed was still agitated from his evening's performance. His color was high and eyes bright. Bahram kept assuring him that the reading had been marvelous. A little while later they were called back into the drawing room. Mawlana Arakan sat flanked by their grandfather and Mannan Dada. Grandfather, usually the most venerable member of the household, looked like a child next to his mentor and uncle. Their father sat right behind the Mawlana. The others formed a circle. Bahram and Jamshed went and stood in the middle of the room.

"What does he want to be?" The Mawlana asked, pointing to Bahram. His voice was so meek and high pitched, it sounded like an old slow speed recording.

"He's the younger one," their father said. "He wants to be a Professor, of Philology.”

“There's no harm in becoming a professor. The income is not so great. Especially for a subject like philology. But there's no harm in it," said the Mawlana, Mannan Dada nodding. It seemed as if Jamshed's choice was so extravagant, that Bahram's audacity had become forgivable.

The Mawlana held the brothers in a deep gaze and then began reciting, first in the original Persian and then in Bengali:

"They say the Lion and the Lizard keep/The Courts where Jamshed gloried and drank deep/And Bahram, that great hunter–The Wild Ass/Stamps o'er his Head, but cannot break his Sleep.

"Do you know who wrote that? That's Omar Khayyam. When I was your age, his quatrains used to haunt me. But The Poetry Audition | 41 you don't read Omar Khayyam anymore. You know neither your own tradition well, nor that of the West. If you did you'd notice how close the sentiment here is to ‘Ozymandias.’ But you probably don't even know what that is. You do? That's good. They tell me Romanticism has gone out of fashion. When I was young it was everything. But nothing impressed us as the Sufis did. How we used to shudder at Omar Khayyam's hedonistic audacity. It made us tremble in delight, in fear. Poetry was not something we read carelessly. The greatest mystics were borne on its wings to the state of f'ana–the fearsome pleasure of uniting with the One, the only One. But the careless mind could be led astray by its superficial charms. You found or lost your Soul reading the likes of Sadi and Hafez, Rumi and Suhrawardy.

"In your poems, there is so much passion, yet so little soul. Why, why does it ring so hollow? Is it because you shallowly imitate the Western poets? Why do you write about despair and nihilism? Their history is not your history. What is all this talk of boredom and isolation? Why do you sing songs of lament–it is the century of their defeats, their moral disasters. But you are so misguided by your modern education"–this he said casting a reproachful glance at their father, who hung his head low with a penitent's humility–‘that it would not be fair for me to blame you.’

“I have discussed your interests with your elders and we don't think you should spoil the opportunity to start a good career. You must pursue a career in something that you have manifest talent and training for. Therefore, it is the wish of your elders, Jamshed, that you go into the army. We all think you will have a bright future there. This is of course not to say that you should give up poetry. On the contrary, it is a noble instinct to have, one that should be cherished, perhaps cultivated further, with proper guidance. But it should not be done carelessly or without proper guidance. I have therefore also arranged with your father's permission for you to read with one of my brightest disciples, Hasib al- Imam. He will come every Friday morning from now. You'll read together, then go for the prayers. Hasib is an expert of Persian poetry, both modern and ancient. You will, of course, start with the classics–Firdausi, perhaps. And this will give you the background you lack."

The Mawlana leaned back in his chair, drawing the hem of his caftan over his lap. The session was over. Bahram and Jamshed left the room with a quick and respectful salaam to the Mawlana. Bahram and Jamshed collapsed in the dining room. The table had been cleared, while the reading was in progress, but the stale smell of the dinner lingered in the air. The brothers sat in silence, made all the more pronounced by the indistinct hum coming from the drawing room.

Uncle Haider stopped in. "Jamshed, why so glum? Worse things happen to people than having to read Persian poetry." Uncle Haider slapped Jamshed on the shoulder and complimented him on his reading "Sounded familiar, but these new ones were much better than your earlier ones. What can you do with the wrong audience?"

Jamshed said nothing. Many of the other guests peeked in, some coming in to shake hands with Bahram and Jamshed or to ruffle their hair, by way of saying farewell. The servants wanted to know if Jamshed wanted to eat now, since he had passed on dinner before. But Jamshed didn't want anything. After the last guest left, their mother brought him a plate of food, which Jamshed left untouched. The lights went out in the drawing room, they heard their father's footsteps going up the stairs. He never came in. The servants turned in a little later. The night watchman's whistle rang outside. Jamshed sat quietly. Bahram offered oblique words The Poetry Audition | 43 of consolation, "Many great poets went to the army, you know. Our own Nazrul fought in Turkey during the Second World War. Baudrillard was polishing cannons in the First..."

“Don't you think I've had enough lectures for one night, professor?" That silenced Bahram, but Jamshed too kept quiet. Bahram, the artful malingerer, who had always been able to slink out of places, couldn't come up with any excuse to leave. Jamshed sat in his corner and, with his hound-dog eyes held Bahram at his, even after it grew light out, even after the first rickshaw bells sounded on the streets.